Archive for the ‘Spirits’ Category

Grappa: Clearly Fine, but Lost in the Woods? – Part Two

November 5, 2018

Last post, I gave a rundown of developing trends in grappa distilling that are clouding the clear spirit that I have long enjoyed. Despite my loyalty to traditional, unaged grappa, I don’t think all these changes, especially producers’ exploration of the effects of different sorts of wood and different periods of aging, are necessarily bad. Some in fact are quite successful. Evidently, much depends on the individual distiller’s goals and the skill he or she (a surprising number of grappa makers are young women, which in itself marks a whole new age in grappa) brings to the task.
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Here’s a quick rundown of what our group of journalists and mixologists tasted over six distillery visits on the trip sponsored by Hello Grappa last month.

 

Bonollo

Grappa “Of” is the trademark name, produced in several versions.


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  • Prosecco, nice and light, with a slightly aromatic nose, clean and lightly spicy on the palate
  • Amarone Barrique, a brandy-ish nose and palate, with slight sweetness: well made, but a touch too wooded for me
  • Amarone, a cherry nose and a complex palate, dry, cherry-ish, and long finishing: my favorite

 

Bottega

The makers of Alexander grappa, now more of a sparkling winery than a distillery, though they also make gin, vermouth, etc. Nevertheless, Bottega produces several fine grappas.


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  • Alexander Nera (black bottle), a blend of Glera, Chardonnay, and Merlot pomace, a nice basic grappa with a floral nose and a smooth, fiery palate
  • Prosecco, lightly aromatic and long finishing
  • Cabernet, typical strong red-pomace aroma and palate
  • Aldo Bottega, a blend similar to the Nera, but more aromatic and elegant, quite good in the modern (i.e., post Nonino and Poli), softer style

 

Bepi Tosolini

Tosolini was among the smallest distillers we visited, and for me one of the most interesting. A third-generation Friulian distillery near Udine that produces both grappa and “Most,” essentially a classic wine-based brandy made from local grapes.


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  • Uve Moscato, a clear grappa with a delicate Moscat nose and palate, very pleasing
  • Most Barrique Ciliegio, a blend of Cabernet franc and Refosco, aged 12 months in cherry wood and tasting pleasantly of it
  • Grappa Agricola, which I thought a classic grappa from red grape pomace – complex and deep, very clean and persistent
  • Most Picolit, sporting a great aroma of this scarce and difficult grape and feeling smooth and elegant in the mouth
  • Grappa Ramondolo Barrique, with delicate, pale gold coloration, the classic nose of this exquisite Friulian variety, and a true grappa fire softened charmingly by the wood aging – for me one of the most successful of the barrique-aged grappas

 

Castagner

A very large producer, making perhaps half of Italy’s grappa, and very interested in long aging of its grappas.


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  • Casta, which is a five-times-distilled, light, floral grappa, designed for cocktails
  • Prosecco, closer to traditional grappa
  • Amarone Riserva, which shows its 18 months of aging in cherry and oak in its woody nose and vanilla-tinted palate
  • Brunello, which receives 12 months’ aging in used Brunello barrels – for me one of the best of the wooded grappas because of the strong Brunello character
  • a 7-year-old, blended of Cabernet, Merlot, and Pinot nero, quite decent, with fruit and wood nearly in balance, especially in the peach, apricot, and wood finish

At the end of dinner we tasted a 14-year-old, a smooth, elegant, cognac-y brandy, very fine, but no longer grappa.

 

Marzadro

Another third-generation distiller, with a very modern facility in Trentino.

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  • Anforo, blended of 70% red varieties and 30% white, aged 18 months in large clay jars: interesting – a basic grappa with earth overtones
  • Moscato: very rich of the variety in nose and palate
  • La Trentina Morbida, from white grapes with slight aging; traditional grappa character
  • Giare Gewurztraminer, aged 36 months in 1,000-liter oak barrels: pale blond, delicate Gewurz nose and palate; nice
  • Dic’otto Botte Porte: aged 18 months in barrique, 18 months in Port casks; amber color, spicy-sweet nose – a pleasing sip, but for me in no sense grappa
  • Espressioni: from Merlot and Cabernet pomace, aged 6 months in American oak; dark amber and very good of its kind
  • Affina Ciliegio: from pomace of Lagrein and Pinot nero, aged 10 years in cherry wood; very nicely balanced between wood notes and grappa in nose and palate – a very pleasing combination

There are also (which we didn’t taste) Affina Rovere, from Teroldego and Marzemino, and Affina Acacia, from Muller Thurgau and Moscato. Marzadro struck me as a very thoughtful and painstaking producer.

 

Bertagnolli

The oldest distillery in Italy, located near Mezzacorona, and making many grappas, both traditional and aged. While experimenting with new styles in grappa, Bertagnolli hasn’t lost sight of its roots.


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  • Grappino bianco: grappa as my palate thinks it ought to be, of 100% Moscato giallo
  • Grappino Barrique: 85% Teroldego pomace, 12 months in barrique; still tastes like grappa, with some vanilla overtones
  • 1870 Grappa Riserva: Teroldego and Cabernet sauvignon, 5 years in barrique; slightly brassy color, pungent dried grape and wood aromas; smooth and predominantly grappa, not wood, in character, very nice – one of the most true-to-grappa characters of the aged grappas we tasted.
  • Teroldego: a lovely grappa with a nice varietal aroma and taste
  • Gewurztraminer: a slightly late harvest gave great aromatics and a classic palate – very fine

 

As you can see from all this, grappa has become a very diverse distillate. Given the many different grapes grown in Italy, traditional grappa was already quite a variable drink, and I’m afraid the tremendous variety now available is only going to overwhelm and alienate the new audience it’s meant to attract. I hope I’m wrong: Certainly, some Cognac and Armagnac drinkers should find aged grappas an attractive path into the grappa forest. But will cocktail drinkers be persuaded to wander in those woods? I guess only time will tell.

Grappa: Clearly Fine, but Lost in the Woods?

October 25, 2018

My recent tour of grappa distilleries, sponsored by Hello Grappa, and in the company of a collegial group of writers and mixologists, was just as pleasurable as I had anticipated, and far more informative than I had expected.

 

 

I’m one of those smart alecs who thought he knew all about grappa; after all, I’ve been drinking it with relish since most of it was thought of as a long-haul trucker’s breakfast drink, and I’ve continued right through its transformation by up-scale Alpine and Dolomite skiers into the fashionable after-dinner drink and after-ski warmer it now is. What could there possibly be for me to learn?

Much, as it turns out.

Not only is there more to the art of distilling than I had realized – there is in fact far more art to it than the relatively straightforward process of distillation would seem to allow, for one thing – but, like so much else, the world of grappa itself is changing.

 

 

Traditional grappa is a clear spirit, aromatic of whatever pomace serves as its base, and fiery or elegant as its maker chooses.But those makers have come to realize, as Alessandro Marzadro, the latest generation of his family-owned distillery (almost all grappa distilleries are family-owned) put it, 90% of the spirits that are drunk neat, as grappa traditionally is, are what the trade calls “brown goods,” and 90% of the clear spirits in the world are used in mixed drinks.

So grappa, it seems, is an anomaly, a clear spirit in a brown-spirit niche; and to increase its market grappa would have to become both a clear spirit and something else – a sipping whisky, so to speak, and a base for cocktails.

I was struck by the obvious truth of his remarks. Grappa, in effect, has been the wrong color for the niche it occupies. I have always loved – and emphatically still do – the sensuously scented, clear, traditional grappas, but they do stand apart from the Cognacs, Armagnacs, and malt whiskies they are customarily shelved with. (Not unlike tequila and mezcal, of course, but that’s another story, not involving grapes at all, and I won’t go there now.)

All the grappa makers our band of merry pranksters visited seemed to be grappling with this dilemma. A few were trying to create a lighter-bodied, less fiery, clear grappa that would appeal in cocktails and mixed drinks. We tasted several of those, some of which were very successful, most of which seemed to me indistinguishable from mixed drinks made with who-knows-what. But I am not a cocktail drinker, and defer to the opinion of those who are: Several of our comitatus were quite excited by many more of these drinks than I.

All the producers we visited were investigating aging their grappas, using different sorts of wood and different periods of time. The experimentation is ongoing, and there are many, many options available for distillers to explore. This is undoubtedly making matters very complicated, not to mention costly, for them: Tracking numerous different micro-distillations, and tying up salable grappa in short- or long-term aging experiments present all too many opportunities for both producers and their grappas to literally get lost in the woods.

 

 

The aging durations most frequently used are 12 and 18 months, and an 18-month-aged grappa may be labeled Riserva. All grappa runs clear from the still: Barrel-aging imparts, among other things, color, which may range from pale yellow to dark brown, depending on the type of wood used and the length of the time in barrel. Oak is the most common wood employed, but ash, chestnut, cherry, and acacia can also come into play. And aging can extend well beyond 18 months: several distillers – Bonollo and Castagner, for example – were experimenting with multiple-year spans, up to 14 years.

The condition of the wood used for aging makes an even greater impact on the finished grappa than does the kind of wood. New oak, or any fresh, unused wood barrel, will impart more sweetness – that vanilla taste – than will a used one, and a lightly charred (toasted) barrel can give coffee and even chocolate notes to a grappa, just as it can to a wine.

Barrels in which wines were previously matured also contribute a whole other range of flavors to grappas. It seems fairly common for grappa makers to age Amarone-derived spirits in old Amarone barrels, for instance: This is in fact something of a long-standing tradition in the Veneto. And we also encountered grappas distilled from Brunello pomace being aged in used Brunello barrels. But individual producers all had their own preferences, according to the style they were seeking for their grappas. Castagner, for instance, the largest distiller we visited, rests all the grappas it intends for aging for six months in cherry wood first, to soften them some, before passing them into barriques to finish their maturation.

This was intriguing to me, though I am far too old and cranky ever to surrender my preference for traditional, clear grappa, whether it be made in the fiery style or what Italians call morbida – soft, and often lightly fruity. For my palate, the most successful aged grappas were those that, along with the acquired quasi-Cognac quality that wood aging imparts, retained a recognizable grappa heart – the firmer spine and tiny hint of fire that bespeaks grappa.

We tasted many grappas, of varying ages, that were very nice brandies, but weren’t grappas any more. A few of these, like the 14-year-old we tasted from Castagner, although no longer recognizable as grappa, had become very fine brandies in their own right: They’d metamorphosed into some third thing that wasn’t grappa or cognac, but nevertheless an excellent drink.

I’ve already written long enough, and presented complications enough, for one post. Next time, I’ll follow up with an account of the distilleries we visited and the grappas – and their variants – we tasted.

Grappa Collection

October 1, 2018

The 10 bottles pictured below are the sad remnants of a once formidable collection of grappas. Once upon a time, I had 40 different kinds. How the mighty have fallen! And just look at the low fill levels in these survivor bottles: I have a terrific ullage problem, as you can clearly see.

 

 

I trust you can also clearly see why it’s imperative for me to spend the next 10 days in Italy visiting grappa distilleries and – speriamo – replenishing my sadly diminished supply. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back. If you’re a praying person, it would be thoughtful of you to drop in a mention of my liver.

Grappa Confronts the New World – At Last

October 30, 2017

I attended an event about two weeks ago of great interest to me: An Italy-wide association of distillers is – finally! – taking organized steps to present grappa to America. As a long-time grappa appassionato, I have been hoping for some sort of action like this for decades. I sincerely believe that, when properly introduced to it, many Americans will enjoy grappa. I know that the great majority of those for whom I’ve poured it found themselves very pleasantly surprised that grappa is far from the “jet fuel” they had always been told it was.

That it never really was anything like that is beside the point now, when grappa distillation has soared in terms of quality and sophistication all through Italy. More popular than ever in its homeland, grappa has escalated and diversified enormously since the days of its first “discovery” by the sophisticated skiers of Italy’s Dolomite and Alpine slopes. Now, monovarietal grappas, rather than those made of blended pomace (vinaccia, in Italian), have become the norm, and the charm of the gentle ghost of each of Italy’s many fine wine grape varieties contributes to the allure of one of the world’s great after-dinner drinks.

Assodistil, the distillery organization, kicked off its “Hello Grappa” campaign in New York with a presentation of grappas from a group of representative grappa producers. Each offered two grappas, a traditional clear bottling and an example of the increasingly popular aged variety. The association is very cannily using the aged grappa – usually more expensive than the clear – as its entry point for American consumers, because in color (pale gold to brilliant amber) and scent (wood accents from its barrel aging) such grappas are reminiscent of cognac, which is the distillate that most American wine drinkers will be familiar with. This should provide those unused to grappa with an easy introduction that will hopefully lead them on to the pleasures of the clear, straight-from-the-still spirit, wherein the nuances of the varietal vinaccia are more pronounced. At least, so hope grappa old-timers like me, whose grappa order is always “chiara, forte – non morbida! – e con fuoco.”

I won’t give tasting notes here for the different grappas I tasted at the Hello Grappa event because they were all excellent examples of their kind, with shades of difference that would take more space to explain than anyone would have the patience to read. That huge range of subtle differences in scent and flavor is for me a major part of grappa’s appeal. To give you some idea of that, here are the kinds that are currently in my liquor cabinet:
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Words and photos can never fully convey the pleasures of grappa. Taste some and enjoy them yourself: It’s really the only way to learn anything about wine or grappa.

Here are the distillers who presented at this event:

  • Acquavita (Castagner)
  • Banfi
  • Bepi Tosolini
  • Bertagnolli
  • Bonollo
  • Borgo Antico San Vitale
  • Bottega (Alexander)
  • Caffo
  • Faled
  • Franciacorta
  • Marzadro
  • Mazetti di Altavilla
  • Spirito Verdiano

All were fine, and I especially relished their monovarietal, unaged grappas – true spirits of the vine.

Two Great Grappas

May 8, 2017

Anyone who has ever had a meal with me knows I am an unrelenting grappista. I long ago stopped being embarrassed by it. Now, if a grappa hasn’t been offered, I just unashamedly ask for one at the end of meal – sometimes before the end, if the meal is an exceptionally ample or long one. My fellow diners variously display interested looks or skeptically lifted eyebrows – until the first aroma of the grappa reaches them. Then, many join me in the sybaritic pleasure of one of the world’s great digestifs.

Most readers of this blog have heard – read? – me say this before. What prompted this outburst was my tasting and immediate acquisition, back in March, of two splendid grappas that I had not known before: Venegazzù Grappa di Capo di Stato and Albino Armani’s Grappa di Amarone. I would go so far as to say these are two of the best grappas I have come upon in a long time. But let me start at the beginning.

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A group of New York wine journalists, arriving in Verona the day before this year’s Amarone Anteprima opened, and knowing there would not be much time for relaxing once the event started, got together for dinner that evening. Guided by Charles Scicolone’s familiarity with Verona restaurants (he is a veteran of many a Vinitaly), we found our way to Ristorante Al Pompiere, just a short way from the Piazza Brà.

The restaurant was comfortable, the food was excellent, and at the end of the meal I asked our waiter for a grappa chiara e con fuoco – clear and fiery. He complied splendidly with a bottle of the Venegazzù estate’s Grappa Capo di Stato, of which we all partook with considerable pleasure. It was not merely clear and fiery, but also elegant and complex. So fine was it that I persuaded the restaurant to sell me a bottle, since I didn’t want to take any chance of not finding it elsewhere.

I was wise to do so – Charles is still kicking himself that he didn’t – since it doesn’t seem to be widely distributed outside of Europe. I try not to write about items that you can’t get in the US, but sometimes something is so good I feel I should just let people know about it. Besides, enough of my readers travel to Europe, and so could acquire a bottle there. Believe me, it’s worth the effort.

The wines of Venegazzù used to be more widely available in the States than they seem to be at present, but they are still as distinguished as they ever were. The estate, in the Treviso region of the Veneto, was originally founded by descendants of Conte Loredan Gasparini, a Doge of Venice.

It has now been acquired by the Palla family, who have continued the high standards set by the original owners. The red wines in particular have always been models of terroir-driven elegance, even though the grapes were and still are French: Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet franc, and Malbec. They are what make Venegazzù’s banner wine, Capo di Stato, and its vinaccia in turn makes the wonderful grappa I’ve been raving about.

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My second great grappa came at lunch the next day. How’s that for an auspicious start to a trip?! My second winery visit of that morning was to the Albino Armani vineyards, one of the highest in the Valpolicella/Amarone zone. It’s also one of the newest, a beautifully stylish, efficient, and eco-friendly installation run by a scion of a family that has been making wine in northern Italy since 1607.

After leading us through a tasting of his whole line of wines – all impressive – Signor Armani served us a mercifully light and tasty lunch, which he followed by pouring small snifters of his Grappa di Amarone. Bliss! Clear as ice water – it was lightly chilled, which enhanced its heady aroma – smooth, elegant, with warmth in its long, long finish, this grappa was every bit as stylish as a name like Armani might suggest, and just as welcome and soothing a digestif as the previous night’s revelation. I floated on a cloud of well-being through the rest of the day’s winery visits. Needless to say, I acquired a bottle of this grappa too before moving on.

Armani’s Grappa di Amarone is, I am very happy to say, available here in the US. Total Wine & More, a multi-state chain, carries it: I don’t know whether that is an exclusive, but like the Venegazzù grappa, this is a bottle worth searching for. I believe it retails for around $50, which I regard as a bargain for a brandy of this quality.

Great Grappa: Marolo

October 22, 2015

It’s no news to any of my regular readers that I love grappa. I have always loved it. Even before it was fashionable, even before what was available here in the US was really good, even when all one could get was thought of as Truckers’ Breakfast, even when some of it gave white lightning a good name, I loved grappa.

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And now that the Italian national distillate has become a fashionable object of pride and connoisseurship, when it has become available from every region and every wine zone and practically every grape variety, I love it all the more. I feel as if my fidelity and devotion are being rewarded, and the grappa gods are smiling on me.

So you can imagine the sense of beatitude I felt when I found out recently that Marolo grappas are going to become more readily available here. Marolo is one of my favorite distillers: I’ve not tasted all of its products, because it produces a great number of different grappas, but I haven’t yet had one I didn’t like – a lot. So this news was elating for me: I had to find out which grappas would be coming to the US, where they would be available, how soon I could get some. Gimme gimme, gimme.

Those of you who don’t know grappa have of course no idea what all this fuss is about. After all, in essence grappa is just another distillate, and in some respects one of the simplest of them, especially since a lot of us grappa tifosi think the clear, unaged ones are the best. Grappas are distilled not from wine or from fruit but from pomace, the solids left after the fermentation of the grapes, what is called in Italian vinaccia.

The Marolo Distillery

The Marolo Distillery

The best of them are made from the vinaccia of a single grape variety, and they are distilled while the vinaccia is still very fresh. Barolo-maker Bruno Ceretto, who knows his grappa, told me many years ago that grappa should be made the way the moonshiners do: quick, quick, quick. Done that way, the varietal aromas and even some of the varietal flavor make it through the distillation process and into the crystalline liquid that flows slowly out of the still after hours of boiling and refining and condensation. That’s why, during the harvest season, devoted still masters don’t sleep, or if they do, it’s alongside their carefully tended copper vessels. Their wives may complain (and they do: I’ve heard them), but grappa, like science, is a demanding mistress.

Barolo grappaMy mention of a Barolo maker wasn’t incidental or accidental. The Marolo distillery is located just outside of Alba, in the heart of Barolo/Barbaresco country, and one of the firm’s ambitions is to become the Nebbiolo distiller. So the initial consignment of Marolo grappas to this country focuses mostly on Nebbiolo and Barolo grappas. The list includes a clear, young Barolo grappa as well as Barolo grappas aged 9, 12, 15, and 20 years. The latter, as you might expect, looks inky dark from the color leached into it in its years of aging in barriques that had previously been used to age Marsala.

Marolo is also sending other Piedmont specialties: a clear Moscato grappa and a slightly aged one (five years in barrels that previously aged passiti from Pantelleria) called Dopo Moscato.
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3 marolo grappas

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The importer, Premium Brands (distributed by Martin Scott), is bringing in as well Marolo’s Brunello grappa, which I believe is, or used to be, distilled from the vinaccia of Angelo Gaja’s Montalcino vineyard, Santa Restituta, plus an intriguing Gewurztraminer grappa from vinaccia from the Alto Adige, plus the Marolo firm’s only blended, non-monovarietal grappa, a very pleasing Amarone grappa, lightly aged in small used Amarone barrels, as is the Veneto tradition.

Lovely as these are, they represent only a fraction of Marolo’s line. Really, the firm is a Piedmont-varieties specialist, not just a Nebbiolo master, and it makes sterling grappas from all the important Piedmont grapes. I particularly love its clear, fragrant Barbera grappa, and I hope to see it on the market here soon.

barbera grappa

A Quick Report on Spain

May 26, 2015

While I wasn’t in Spain on a wine trip, I didn’t – of course – stop drinking wine, or at least trying to. Which didn’t turn out to be as easy as you might think, in the nation that boasts the world’s largest acreage of vineyards.

Old head-trained vines in Extremadura

 

We were staying in mostly simple rural hotels and eating at mostly simple rural cafes and restaurants – it was a birding trip, after all – where wine lists were brief (occasionally nonexistent) and concentrated on very local wines. Most of the people around us were drinking beer and soft drinks (Coca Cola seems to have Spain in thrall), even when – as we discovered is quite usual in Spain – wine is included in the price of the meal.

On some occasions, this was completely understandable. We had one or two meals where the local wine on offer gave plonk a good name. We also had two or three occasions when we were able to get quite good wines. But most of the time it was pretty ordinary stuff, drinkable and pleasant but in no way memorable. So there will no great revelations here (I’m at least as disappointed as you are), just a brief recounting of the most interesting bottles we hit upon.

Oh! One surprise, before I get started: Sherry is now next to impossible to find in Spain. I remember that in the past it was ubiquitous, and even simple bars offered a choice of finos, plus a manzanilla and/or an amontillado, with usually a PX lurking somewhere among the bottles. But not now. We hit upon the occasional fino, and once a manzanilla, but that was it for Sherry. We’d gotten better choices on our Iberia flights than we did in the rural parts of the peninsula.

The most widely available wine we found was, not surprisingly, Rioja, and we were pleased to drink it when it was offered. Several producers were not familiar to me (which was predictable), and the most widely available of the bigger, regularly imported producers was the ever-reliable Cune. A Cune 2007 Riserva was the one of the two oldest wines we drank on the trip – very enjoyable, with real elegance and restraint. Most wines were considerably younger, with four- or five-year-old Crianza Rioja serving as the major mature wine on most of the simple wine lists we saw.

 

Three Riojas

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The Parador de Cervera, in the Castile and Leon region, provided the one significant exception: a lovely bottle of Rioja Riserva 2008 from RemelluriRemelluri. A little post-trip research revealed that this was a truly traditional producer, whose 140 hectares of vineyards straddle the Rioja Alevesa and the Rioja Alta. Its Rioja Riserva contained not just Tempranillo but also Garnacia and Graciano, plus the white grapes Viura and Malvasia. This is – or was – the traditional kind of mixture of grapes that made Rioja, just as Chianti used to contain a mixture of white grapes and local red varieties beyond Sangiovese. I am happy to report that it made a very, very elegant wine, serene and harmonious – the best wine of our trip.

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White wines presented a much more mixed picture. Where Tempranillo was the ubiquitous, workhorse grape variety among reds, no single variety dominated among the whites. We had some decent and some indifferent Albarinos and Verdejos, as well as a number of whites blended of local varieties either unnamed or indecipherable on the label. Some of these latter showed a touch of fresh citric fruit and minerality, some were just blah.

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Four white wines

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The best of the whites, for freshness, pleasing, racy fruit, and consistent enjoyability, were unquestionably those fermented from a grape the labels called Macabeo. This turned out to be another name for the grape most of us know better as Viura. I was familiar with it from Catalonia, where it is blended into Cava, as well as being vinified and bottled solo. It appears to be the most popular white grape in the Rioja region also, which means that, with those strongholds in the northwest and southeast of the country, Viura/Macabeo amounts to the most widely available white wine in Spain – which is a fine thing, since it makes so pleasing a wine.

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Finally, I need to say a word about Spanish brandy. Spanish brandy looks and tastes very different from French: usually darker and sweeter, often with a slightly caramelized edge. It’s not what I want every day, but it follows a large Spanish dinner very well – and dinners all tend to be large, so we had recourse to it more often than we expected during our stay.

There are two chief kinds, both very fine: Sherry-based brandy – Brandy de Jerez – and brandy from, and based on, Malaga. Sherry is self-explanatory, but Malaga may need some introduction. The Sherry region lies northwest of Gibraltar, while Malaga lies about the same distance northeast. Its rich, dark dessert wine, made from Pedro Ximénez and a variety of Muscat grapes, used to be quite famous, but went even more deeply than most into the eclipse that the world’s great dessert wines endured. Lately, Malaga shows some signs of reviving as a wine, but it has never lost favor as the source of some of Spain’s best brandies. We enjoyed both kinds. Of the Jerez brandies, our favorites were Cardinal Mendoza, Gran Duque d’Alba, and Lepanto. Of the Malaga brandies, our hands-down favorite was 1866, which is a great brandy by any measure.

P.S. Diane’s blog has a post about some of the things we ate in Spain.

Let Us Now Praise After-Dinner Drinks

August 18, 2014

I know summer is not supposed to be the time for thinking about, much less consuming, brandies, but I can’t help it: I’m addicted. For me, nothing completes an enjoyable dinner as well as a fine digestivo – or digestif, if you prefer. Whichever you call it, those names indicate exactly what that little tot does: Settle in the good food you’ve just ingested and comfortably begin the process of digesting it.

Not that I need to have eaten to the point of discomfort: far from it. I’m talking about a good, modest dinner, not a Coney Island hot dog eating contest. Perhaps in my distant youth I might have been interested in some such marathon, but these days I couldn’t even if I wanted to: Age and metabolic changes (they will come to all of us) have drastically reduced my consumption. Diane and I together now can’t finish a T-bone steak that once would have been just right for one of us. Our capacity is way down, but that doesn’t make a juicy piece of beef any less delicious:  Now more than ever, it’s quality that counts, not quantity – just as, with wine, it has always been quality that mattered more than alcohol.

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So the only question in my mind is not whether one should end a good meal with a little snocker of something, but with which one?  Armagnac?  Calvados? Cognac? A fruit eau de vie? Grappa?  Marc?  Tequila?  Single-malt whisky? And which one of the many in each category?  There’s no easy answer to that: Each has its niche. And it isn’t just a question of the great diversity of these drinks. No: It’s also the fact that each one of these spirits alters with the food you’ve consumed before it. That can be most obvious in the case of grappa, where the same specimen will sometimes smell freshly fruity and sometimes reek like aged Parmigiano, but it is equally true of spirits seemingly more well-defined, like Cognac or Armagnac, which, when they are not exactly what the doctor ordered, can be either too fiery or too sweet, depending on what foods they’re following.

I know only one way to determine which little tot to choose on any given evening: Pull the cork and sniff the bottle. Usually, the meal’s flavors in your mouth and scents in your nose will point to a broad category of spirits: an Alsace fruit eau de vie, or a Piedmontese or a Tuscan grappa, for instance. But after that, only taking a good sniff from a bottle or two or three will make clear to you whether you want Framboise or Poire, Barbera or Moscato, Sangiovese or Canaiolo – or maybe you want to go in a completely other direction and pour yourself a wee dram of peaty, smoky, seaweedy Oban or Talisker.

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I’ve enjoyed all of the above at different times and in different circumstances, and each has had its moment when it seemed like the only taste in the world that could fit that moment. Equally, I’ve had times when I sniffed the bottle and thought “Why in the world would I ever drink that?”  The process is always illuminating, and the result is always fun, haphazard as it may be.

What actually causes these changes, in the drink and/or in my perception of it, I don’t really know. Science has other things on its mind, and no wine journalist I know of has made a serious study of this phenomenon – but it strikes me as far more interesting and pertinent to day-to-day gastronomic contentment than the molecular composition of any of Ferran Adria’s foams. That’s not the chemistry I’m interested in. Much of my contentment and my health, both mental and physical, derive from the day-to-day experimental science of the table and its pleasures.

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Recently, I’ve been spending more time than I really want to with members of the medical profession – nothing life-threatening, but a few symptoms that are quality-of-life disturbing – and some MDs seem both unfamiliar with the concept of pleasure and incapable of pronouncing words like “wine” or “cognac” or even “beer.”  To the puritanical breed of White Coats, there is only Alcohol; and it’s all the same, and it’s a poison. No matter how healthy your liver and kidneys, brains and guts may be, it’s poison, and if you “use” it, you’re killing yourself.

I’ve given up asking such doctors whether metabolisms aren’t sufficiently different to make generalizations like that useless, and pointing out that I don’t plan to live forever and would willingly trade off a few years of gustatory boredom for a slightly shorter span of intense palatal pleasure. That’s my version of the choice of Achilles. Sadly, such MDs don’t seem to even comprehend the alternatives.

Not all are like that, of course: Occasionally I come across a sybarite who, while poking my torso in search of overripe spots, happily picks my brain for wine suggestions. Maybe I should bill them for the consultation?

All this is not as far off my subject as it might at first appear. It’s no accident that brandies and whiskies and that whole class of distilled drinks used to be known as cordials. They were thought to be – and I think they are – good for your heart. And remember, many are still called eaux de vie, and eau de vie means water of life. Now that I think of it, that too is what whisky means. I don’t think any of this etymological convergence is accidental. Stoking digestion is good for you, and doing so with a complex and delicious, gently fiery small glass of spirits (again, the word is no accident) is one of the more brilliant inventions of our flawed civilization.

Whisky, You’re the Devil

October 7, 2013

Once upon a time, I toured the Highlands of Scotland with a small group of journalists. The Scotch Whisky Institute sponsored the trip, and it was very well organized. Nine o’clock every morning found us at the first of the three or four single malt distilleries we would visit that day, and at ten o’clock precisely, every morning, the manager or master distiller who was guiding us would look impishly at his watch and ask, “Now would ye care for a wee dram?”

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Distillery

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We discovered, on the first day of the trip and to its organizers’ deep consternation, that I was the only member of the press contingent who actually drank Scotch. The others had just been told by their editors that they would take this trip and write the story. Those were the days when “life style” articles were thought to require no expertise: How the world has changed!

Anyhow, that left it up to me to take one for the team – every day. I did so happily, and enjoyed the Highlands thoroughly, and – oh yes! – learned quite a bit about fine Scotch whisky. Before that trip, I had liked single malts. During it, I developed a passion for them that stays with me to this day. Many evenings, I will happily choose a good Scotch – by which I definitely mean a single malt – for my post-prandial digestive, even over my beloved grappa.

It always surprises me to find how many wine lovers think it’s somehow wrong to finish a meal with a whisky. Perhaps it’s some sophisticated echo of the old wino’s fear of mixing “the grape and the grain,” which schoolboys probably still think will make you sick – at least they did when I was a schoolboy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Single malts are as refined and as varied (even more, truth to tell) as Cognacs and Armagnacs, and almost as numerous and as highly differentiated as grappas.

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Oban

All are, as the name implies, distilled from malted and then fermented barley and only from barley. Blended Scotches contain grain whiskies – often a preponderance of the blend – as well as barley whiskies. Single malts, by contrast, are the thing itself, with all its nuances of terroir, malting of the barley, and water – especially water. You would not believe what a difference the source of its water can make to a Scotch. This is why so many distilleries cluster in northeast Scotland, in the valley of the river Spey. These Speyside malts are among the most elegant and distinguished of all Scotches. My favorite among their number is Oban, an incomparably complex and smooth aqua vitae.*

Islay maltsBut Speyside is just a small part of the Highlands, and fine single malts are made all through there – The Macallen is a great one – as well as in the Lowlands, Campbeltown, the islands, and Islay. The latter is probably my very favorite source of Scotches. All the Islay whiskies are marked by intense peatiness and brininess – the aroma, as my wife remarks, wrinkling her nose in distaste, of smoky beach fires and long-weathered seaweed. For most people, that’s enough to send them back to cognac, but for confirmed single malt drinkers, it’s sheer bliss. Laphroaig and Lagavulin have comforted me on many a chilly winter night and eased along that one-too-many tiny last slice of leg of lamb or apple pie.

TaliskerIslay is the only one of the numerous islands off Scotland’s western and northern coast to have its own recognized appellation, but the other islands also produce notable whiskies – especially Talisker, the only whisky produced on the Isle of Skye, a fabled spot in Scottish history. It was to Skye that Bonnie Prince Charlie fled in 1745 after the disaster of Culloden (massacre, Scots still call it), and it was from Skye that with the aid of its ancestral lairds, the MacDonalds, he escaped to France, leaving behind an abiding nostalgia for “the king over the water,” some beautiful folk songs, and the recipe for Scotland’s national liqueur, Drambuie.

All single malt distilleries bottle different versions of their whiskies at different ages. I prefer the relatively younger ones – between 10 and 16 years of age – because I find that beyond that they become a bit over-refined. I like them still with a bit of fire, and tasting more of where they came from than of the barrels they’ve been aging in. That’s what makes them so different from each other and so endlessly fascinating.

* Correction: Oban remains complex and smooth, but it’s not from Speyside. It’s a Highland whisky, as Ole Udsen points out in his comment.

Burton Anderson’s New Blog; and Some Wines that Surprised Me

January 21, 2012

Burton Anderson has started a blog. If you are below a certain age threshold, that announcement may not make you sit up and take notice, but for seriously ancient winos like myself, that news is electric. For those who love Italian wines, Burt Anderson is the maestro, the pioneer, the guy who got there first and first pulled it all together so that it made sense to the rest of us. His book Vino was the eye-opener, and is still an enjoyable and useful read, after 30 years. Everyone who has written about Italian wine since owes Burton an enormous debt, whether they know it or not, whether they acknowledge it or not. And very few who have written about Italian wine since have done so with the style, thoroughness, and total honesty that Burt brought to the task. And now he is bringing the same qualities to a blog.

As his title indicates, this blog is about more than wine: he is turning out some his best writing yet on a whole range of subjects, Italian, cultural, and topical. In my not-especially-humble opinion, the blogosphere needs more good writing like Burt’s and more of his kind of directness.

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And now, as Monty Python would say, for something completely different. Every now and again I taste anew a wine I thought I was familiar with or a wine I’ve never encountered before. I’ve rounded up a few of those “Aha!” experiences to share with you.

Villa Matilde Falanghina 2006.  I drank this five-year-old in late November 2011, with smoked sturgeon toasts and shrimps creole. Falanghina is a grape and a wine I love, but I usually drink it in its second or third year. So I was nervous about the age: I seemed to have lost sight of the bottle and forgotten that I had it. Although the nose seemed fine – maybe a little sherry hint, but nothing off-putting – the color when poured terrified me. It was not just gold, but orangey gold, more than a little strange. The flavor, however, was just perfect: definitely Falanghina, but past its initial freshness and into dried-fruit sensations – apricot, Diane says; some dried fig too, I thought, but minus the sugar. It worked beautifully with both dishes, and drank just fine by itself as well. Who knew the grape took any age at all? Much less that it took it so gracefully? Yet one more proof that well-made Italian white wines can last.

Li Veli Verdeca 2010. A white from an endangered grape in Puglia. Lovely stuff: medium to full body, earthy, with mushroomy notes: a real food wine – vaguely Burgundian in its bulk on the palate, but emphatically Italian in its flavors and minerality. Made by the Falvo brothers, who achieved fame for many years at Avignonesi in the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano zone. In 1999 they acquired an old vineyard property in one of the most historic wine areas of Puglia, the Val d’Itria. They have sold their interest in Avignonesi and moved themselves to Puglia, where, among other things, they began the Askos project, an attempt to revive some of the most ancient varieties of the zone. On the basis of this wine, I’d say they seem to be about to do great things. We drank this Verdeca with a Basque hake with green sauce (predominantly garlic-flavored) which it took perfectly in stride.

Chave Celeste St. Joseph blanc 2007.  Enjoyed with a good lunch at brasserie Artisanal, this was not only a reminder of how good the white wines of the Rhône can be, but also a revelation of just how skilled a winemaker is the house of Chave. I think of Chave, first of all – and up until this point perhaps exclusively – as a red wine producer. The house is most famous – and rightly so – for its Hermitage, which is one of the greatest red wines of the Rhône. Some consider it the supreme rendition of that appellation, a wine of great depth and age-worthiness. This four-year-old white gave every indication of the same kind of age-worthiness – it was still fresh and vital – along with amazing nuance. It showed the kind of slate-and-wet-stones-with-dry-apricot that some connoisseurs associate primarily with Condrieu, which it more and more reminded me of with every sip. And at a small fraction of the cost! I should be surprised like this every day.

Formentini Pinot Grigio 2010. I used to know this wine as another one of the faceless “cocktail-style” Pinot grigios that Italy has been pouring out for decades now. Well, there have been big changes at Formentini, and this is no longer an airhead Pinot grigio to gulp at the bar. Now vinified from high-altitude plantings of low yield, and gingerly handled in the cellar, it has become a very interesting, medium-bodied wine to serve with dinner. Sure, you can still drink it enjoyably as an aperitif – but it now has complexity and character enough to be far more enjoyable with a good roast chicken or a delicate veal scallop. It’s a nice reminder of what Pinot grigio is capable of when some care is taken with it.

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And one after-dinner drink:

Clear Creek Grappa. Color me flabbergasted. An American grappa that tastes like the real thing! Who knew? It fooled me completely: I thought I had been handed a rather fine Italian distillate. This Oregon distillery uses local fruits and distills them in a very traditional manner to make a whole range of grappas and eaux de vie. On the basis of the single example of its work I’ve so far tasted, I have a lot of pleasant exploration ahead of me.